January 29, 2009 / 10:07 AM / in 9 years

Nearly 7 million Zimbabweans need food aid: WFP

HARARE (Reuters) - More than half of Zimbabwe’s population, suffering under a severe economic and political crisis, will need food aid in February and March, the World Food Programme said on Thursday.

<p>A boy carries a tin of cooking oil from a food aid distribution centre in Chirumanzi, 250 km (155 miles) southeast of Harare, Zimbabwe, January 15, 2009. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo</p>

The WFP said in a statement that it aims to assist 5.1 million people in February while a group of U.S.-sponsored aid organisations plans to assist 1.8 million more people in the southern African country.

“The overall total for people in need of assistance in February and March is around 7 million,” the WFP said.

Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown has been worsened by a cholera outbreak which has killed nearly 3,100 people and infected 58,993 across the country -- the worst death toll in Africa from an outbreak of the normally preventable disease in 15 years.

A power-sharing agreement reached in September between Zimbabwe’s political rivals, seen as a chance to ease the humanitarian crisis and save the faltering economy, has yet to be implemented.

The United Nations said on Thursday unemployment was 94 percent. Food and fuel are in short supply. The last official inflation rate, for July 2008, was 231 million percent.

“World record hyperinflation and a collapsing banking system pose major challenges to humanitarian operations, with most agencies affected by the lack of cash and inability to access foreign currency,” the United Nations said in an appeal for $550 million in aid.

Regional leaders decided at a summit on Tuesday that a unity government should be formed next month.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has said he agreed to form a government with President Robert Mugabe although his Movement for Democratic Change voiced disappointment with the deal reached at the summit. MDC officials are expected to meet on Friday to discuss how to proceed.

Zimbabwe’s finance minister is due to present the country’s annual budget on Thursday and analysts expect it to contain desperate measures in the wake of the economic collapse and political crisis.

Analysts say the budget -- coming two months later than usual -- would be both a number-crunching exercise and a confirmation that Zimbabwe has been forced to use foreign currencies after the spectacular collapse of its own currency.

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